Shoah Foundation signs deal with National Library of Israel, giving full access to its collections to everyone in Israel

The arrangement with Israel is only first step before eventually making the video testimonies of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors and hundreds of Oct. 7 survivors available worldwide, Shoah Foundation executive director says

Everyone in Israel will now have full access to the USC Shoah Foundation’s collection of testimonies from more than 52,000 Holocaust survivors and hundreds of survivors of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks through a new agreement between the organization and the National Library of Israel signed on Monday in Jerusalem.

The new partnership is meant to both provide Israelis with a resource to combat contemporary antisemitism and to serve as a “case study” to demonstrate the viability and need of making the collection fully and freely available to everyone, Shoah Foundation Executive Director Robert J. Williams told eJewishPhilanthropy before the signing of the deal.

Williams said he hopes to make the collection available universally by the end of the year.

Joel Citron, chair of the Shoah Foundation, said the memorandum of understanding with the National Library of Israel marked only the “step one” of making the collection available around the world. “But there will be a step two, three and four,” he said. “It’ll take some time, but we’re working very hard on it.”

Until now, roughly 10% of the Shoah Foundation’s Institute for Visual History and Education collection has been accessible online to anyone, while the rest of it has only been available at 180 universities and museums around the world. This new partnership will allow anyone with an Israeli IP address to “search, stream and download testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust and other antisemitic attacks” through a dedicated page on the library’s website.

The agreement was signed by Williams and National Library of Israel Chairman Sallai Meridor in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, which first opened its doors in a limited capacity in late October, following a major, yearslong effort to construct a new building for the institution.

Both Meridor and Williams said they hoped that this agreement marked the start of a deepening relationship between the National Library and the Shoah Foundation.

“This is only the beginning,” Williams said, voicing admiration for the library’s technology division, as well as its education department. “I think there’s a lot we can do there,” he added.

Since coming on board as the chief executive at the Shoah Foundation, Williams has made it a priority for the organization to document and combat contemporary antisemitism, on top of its work related to the Holocaust. This includes collecting testimony about Jews who suffered antisemitic attacks after 1945, including Jews from Muslim countries who faced attacks after the foundation of the State of Israel, U.S. Jews in the post-civil rights era, Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews and terror attacks since the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Williams told eJP the foundation plans to collect 10,000 such interviews in the near future.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Williams said the agreement has already expanded his understanding of what the Shoah Foundation has to do in order to make its collections accessible around the world. 

Williams noted that making the collection available in Hebrew required the Shoah Foundation to not only translate the testimonies and documents themselves but also to translate the metadata behind the collection, so that the Hebrew-speaking public can search for materials in their native tongue. As the foundation looks to expand access to its collection around the world, it will also translate that metadata into other languages as well, he said.

“The only way to make this content available to people is if it is in their mother tongue, and honestly we wouldn’t have thought of that if it hadn’t been for this partnership,” Williams said. 

Citron and Meridor both credited with Trudy Gottesman, who sits on the board of the Shoah Foundation and whose family was one of the major donors toward the construction of the library, with making the “shidduch” (matchmaking) between them and bringing the collection to the library.

The signing kicked off the USC Shoah Foundation’s four-day solidarity mission to Israel. The top officials from the organization, as well as members of its board, are also due to meet with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, visit Yad Vashem and meet with Oct. 7 survivors and families of hostages.

Almost immediately after the Oct. 7 terror attacks, the National Library of Israel and the Shoah Foundation, along with a number of other organizations and initiatives, joined together to collect and gather testimonies and other forms of documentation about the massacres.

Raquel Ukeles, the head of collections for the library, recalled an early phone conversation that she had with Williams about the creation of this unified effort.

“We were in shock, we were in trauma…. And you said to me, ‘Raquel, you have the ability to build this right,’” Ukeles said, comparing this centralized, cooperative effort to the more haphazard, scattered initiatives to collect testimonies and documents relating to the Holocaust.

Ahead of the signing, Meridor stressed the importance of making this collection available at this time.

“I’ve never been as worried or as sad,” Meridor said.

The Oct. 7 attack “is shaking the structure, not just one of the floors, of the basic promise of Zionism that this would never happen, that we may die in battle, but that pogroms would never happen in a sovereign Jewish state,” he said. “And this very basic promise is being challenged. It will take a lot of effort to climb out [of this situation]. I am sure that we will do it. The spirit of this people is beyond belief. But there are no miracles and there are no magicians, and it will be a very tough climb uphill.”

These testimonies and documents will allow the people exposed to them to “learn about the capacity of human beings in general to let themselves fall to the lowest depths that one can think of, of depravity and cruelty and inhumanity and, at the same time, the zeniths that humans can get to through conscience and courage and hope,” he said.